Accepted by The Quarterly 1992, magazine folded before publication. Copyright 2024 by Tetman Callis.

          I just flew back from New York tonight and feel pretty good about it. I got thrown out of a gallery my last day there, and feel pretty good about that, too. By “thrown out” I should say, I wasn’t bodily removed from the premises, but requested that I remove my body on my own as a consequence of an aesthetic disagreement I became engaged in with the gallery director regarding a photograph I wanted to take, which photo was not of anything she had on display, but of some art she had stacked in a corner in a careless manner—a manner that made for a much better photograph than I could have made from any of the things she had hanging on her walls. I urged her, when she told me photos were not allowed, to get herself a camera and take the photograph. I even told her where to stand. She told me where to go.

          But I didn’t take the photo. When she saw me pull my camera out and told me photos were not allowed, I hesitated, then said, “All right.” I used to view having a camera as having a license to photograph whatever I saw, when I was younger and had delusions of becoming a photojournalist. I even claimed to be one once, when a woman I candidly shot came off the wall about it. What a coincidence that she turned out to be the editor-in-chief of the paper I claimed to be working for. People can be so touchy sometimes.

          A few years back, I looked up once, in no particular place, to find myself being surreptitiously shot. On the one hand, I was flattered, while on the other, I thought, My God, I hope I wasn’t just looking generally vapid, or chewing my fingernail, or scratching a zit. Nowadays, I rarely photograph someone without permission, and if I do, it’s generally from a safe enough distance that I can escape on foot should my action offend.

          Sometimes, though, as in that gallery in New York, people take, to me, the strangest offense at someone who wants to photograph a thing. Some years ago, before I had returned to college and was living in El Paso, working as a bartender and carrying my camera about, having my photojournalistic delusions while being laughed out of editorial offices for having neither the proper college degree nor a portfolio that showed more than the barest rudiments of talent and skill, I happened one morning, after sunrise, after having been at work most of the night then partying the remainder, while on my way home to my house, which was actually my girlfriend’s house and had been since her divorce, I happened upon an accident.

          This accident wasn’t some grisly roadside scene with dismembered limbs, people screaming, blood everywhere and dead faces with eyes opened in terminal surprise. This accident was a plane crash. It wasn’t an ordinary plane crash, either, like the roadside scene except more so and on fire—except that it was an ordinary plane crash.

          Every place with regular air traffic has its ordinary plane crashes. The ordinary plane crash at El Paso’s airport, back when I lived in El Paso, was the “Fort Boulevard Skid.” This accident generally involved a Navy or Air Force A-7 skidding off the end of the runway while attempting to land. The aircraft didn’t have far to go off the end of the runway before smashing through a chain-link fence, which generally happened milliseconds after the crew had fired their ejection seats, and milliseconds before the aircraft slid across Fort Boulevard, which was, and remains, a fairly busy six-lane thoroughfare. Sometimes the plane would explode, and sometimes it wouldn’t. I was driving to work one snowy night and saw the sky over the airport flash yellow from the explosion at the terminus of one of these skids. Milagro de milagros, hardly anybody was ever seriously hurt in one of these accidents, though once, the top of a passing pickup truck was taken off.

          This particular morning I was driving home during, after having worked all night then partied all night, maybe after having dropped acid—this was the summer I dropped a lot of acid, the summer this morning was in—and also around this time was the time I did Mysoline a few times, Mysoline being a drug used to control epileptic seizures, which I have never had, which control is effected, if I remember correctly, by the chemical separation of the corpus callosum, that being the neural network connecting the hemispheres of the brain. My playing with such toys may explain some of the problems I have nowadays—though, if I can remember corpus callosum, perhaps I am not so bad off. I just have a tendency to digress, is all.

          This one particular morning, I digressed over to the airport, the El Paso International, after hearing on my car’s AM radio that an airplane had done the skid the night before. I saw the plane, a Navy A-7, on a flatbed trailer inside the airport precincts, near the crash site. I parked my car in a legal place, took my camera with me, and walked over to where I could shoot the plane through those parts of the chainlink fence it had not hit on its way out of the airport. The plane was, as I said, loaded onto a flatbed trailer, which trailer was the olive drab color of the peacetime Army of those days, and was attached in the regular way to a likewise-colored Army truck. El Paso, you know, is not near the sea, and the jet was just passing through when it got tripped up. It was a carrier jet, complete with arresting hook. A couple of young MPs stood guarding the wrecked jet, which was not in such bad shape. Its landing gear were mangled, and the belly roughed up a bit, but it looked, to my unprofessional eye, as though it might fly again. Not immediately, of course.

          I took a few shots of the plane, in one or two of which the MPs appeared, smoking cigarettes. There was fuel oil, Jet-A or whatever it is those things carry, in a ditch otherwise filled with water, and there was a huge gash cutting across the pavement and curbing of Fort Boulevard. I was photographing these things when one of the MPs approached and told me I had to stop.

          “Why?” I said.

          “Who are you taking them for?” he said.

          “I’m a freelancer,” I said.

          Now, this MP was about my age, which was twenty-one, and he maybe had never heard of “freelancer” and may have thought it was some secret anti-American cabal. There I was, in my white shirt, black pants, black shoes, and long red hair down below my shoulders, taking photographs at dawn of a crashed A-7. Not that the A-7 was a secret weapon. It was used in Vietnam and was upgraded and kept in service until after the end of the Cold War. It’s the jet with the big intake scoop underneath the nose and cockpit—the scoop that looks like it could suck a man in if he stood too close. It can, it will, and it has. From a distance, silhouetted against the sky, the A-7 looks like a cigar with wings. It’s a good airplane, but it’s been obsolete for a while. I wouldn’t necessarily want to fly one in contested skies, not without fighter escort and maybe an AWACS to back me up. And let’s face it, had this particular A-7 on this particular morning been packing anything secret, the Pentagon would have had more than a young, cigarette-smoking MP or two on hand to deal with any Mysolined freelancers wandering by on the rag-ends of acid trips. This was just your standard A-7 skid, nowhere near as exciting as your exploding A-7 skid, and with none of the drama and tragedy of the day the B-36 flew into the Franklin Mountains there in El Paso.

          Unlike the A-7, the B-36 was, at the time it crashed, which was a few years before I was born, a fairly secret airplane. It was a huge, ugly thing, with six pusher turboprop engines and four jet engines, and was designed to carry I-don’t-know-what: bombs from America all the way to Asia, or the hydrogen bomb, or the fate of mankind. It had a double crew and lots of food and drink and midair refueling capacity, so it could stay in the air around the clock, bombing the Soviet Union back to the Slag Age while likewise occurred here at home.

          This particular B-36 was flying into El Paso, or more precisely into Biggs Field, which was at the time a Strategic Air Command base right next to the airport. The morning the B-36 flew in was a badly socked-in morning, a November or December morning with a low ceiling and light drizzle. The B-36 approached for landing from the west, low because of the ceiling, and the pilot apparently didn’t realize or remember that the Franklin Mountains stood between him, his crew, their plane, and Biggs Field. They hit the mountain high above Stanton Street, above the well-to-do district on El Paso’s West Side.

          The newspapers say you can still go up to the crash site, if you know where to find it, and find the odd scrap of B-36. I’ve been up there, around the same time I was freelancing on drugs, but I didn’t go there to find bomber parts. Once I went just to look, in the daytime, and once I went at night with a waitress I had picked up at Denny’s. She was kind of chubby and plain, but I’m kind of skinny and plain, so that worked out. I don’t remember her name, or her face, much, or even her body much, but we went over to Juárez after hours to get Canadian whiskey and maybe 7-Up, and then up into the well-to-do people’s mountains to make out in the car that belonged to the girlfriend who was the same one I was living with at the time of the A-7 crash. I think I probably told this waitress the B-36 story there in the dark while we drank and felt each other. I don’t think I told her the girlfriend story, and the last time I saw her was a few nights later when she came into the bar I worked and my girlfriend was there.

          I do have a tendency to digress. The MP at the A-7 site wanted me to cease and desist. I told him I was on city property.

          “I’ll call the police,” he said.

          “Go ahead,” I said.

          I was almost done anyway. My last shot was of the fuel-befouled ditch, with the MP and a city cop talking out of focus in the background.

          None of the photographs I took that day were very good, and not one of them has improved much with time. The girlfriend put up with my nonsense until late one night I came home from an after-party to find a pillow and blanket waiting for me on the couch. She didn’t exactly throw me out, but I wasn’t completely stupid. I left right away, crashed at a friend’s place, and came back a few days later to get my stuff. She helped me pack, made sure I didn’t accidentally take anything that didn’t belong to me.